I want to begin by praising N.T. Wright, but I want to do so in order to critique the Church of England, along with Dr. Wright’s apparent approach to her.
In Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright has a wonderful section where he shows that forgiveness of sins needs to be understood in a manner that is much broader than the mere cleansing of an individual’s sins. This is quite true, and to head off a falsehood that might be asserted here at Wright’s expense, he is not dispensing with the need for individual forgiveness. He is simply pointing out that in certain key places Scripture equates forgiveness of sin with return from exile. Not only does he make this point, he then quotes a raft of Bible verses that say essentially the same thing (JVG, pp. 268ff). As Wright puts it, “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.'” As Jeremiah puts it, “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished; He will keep you in exile no longer” (Lam. 4:22). See also Jer. 31:31-34, Jer. 33:4-11, Ezek. 36:24-26, 33, Ezek. 37:21-23, and multiple places in Isaiah. So then, Wright argues (scripturally) that forgiveness of sin is a concept that is woven together with return from exile. And he argues scripturally that this a street on which the traffic goes both ways. “Since covenant renewal means the reversal of exile, and since exile was the punishment for sin, covenant renewal/return from exile means that Israel’s sins have been forgiven — and vice versa” (p. 269). Note that vice versa.
At this point all the TR suspicions of N.T. Wright come out to play, and people start worrying (or worse, asserting) that Wright is undermining the need for individual conversion, cleansing and forgiveness. The fact that this is a false criticism obscures the fact that there is another criticism, far more potent, and it is resting right on the surface of what Wright is saying here.
Let me use an example right out of the current issue of First Things. Those good folks have reported that the Archbishop’s Council (a sort of CoE cabinet) has issued some guidelines (that carry the authority and approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams). These guideliness caution against the use of the words “Lord,” “He,” or “Father” when referring to God. Failure to observe this more excellent way may result in men abusing women. Now for many conservative Christians this is just one more “roll your eyes” moment. This is the kind of thing that these ecclesiastical johnnies are always doing, all the time.
Sure. Exactly. But let’s describe this another way. Instead of dismissing it as one more example of pc-lunacy, what’s a more biblical way of describing a church in this condition? A more prophetic way? Luther used this kind of expression in his polemic against the ecclesiastical abuses of his day. Exactly. A church like this is a church in exile. Nothing is right; everything is screwed up; all the bones are out of joint.
The Church of England (in England, not Nigeria) is clearly in exile. I remember a hilarious episode of Yes, Prime Minister where the queen needed to recommend someone for a bishopric, and they were trying to find a suitable candidate who believed in God. There is a certain state of affairs necessary for this kind of satire to work, and we are into that state of affairs, up to our necks. So the Church of England is in exile.
But this means that in biblical parlance, her sins are not forgiven. And it won’t do at this point to retreat to our (much despised) individualism in order to point out that lots of Anglicans will go to heaven when they die, which is quite true. It is also quite beside the point because lots of Jews in the first century went to heaven when they died too, but that didn’t keep Israel from being in exile.
N.T. Wright as a scholar has many wonderful things to say about the text of Scripture. As a churchman, he appears to have a peculiar blindness to the mad-mitre state of affairs around him. But instead of individualists reacting to what he says that is plainly scriptural, we need to take what he points to in Scripture, and we need to be diligent to apply it. This is because Jesus came to embody a new way of being Israel. He came to establish a new way of being human. Jesus came in order make possible a new way of being Anglican.